Russian into Things

It’s the holiday season.  The people I overheard at the bus stop the other day were discussing shopping on the bus.  It can be a long trip from here, and evening traffic out of New York (ironically) is quite heavy this time of year.  Bored commuters, sitting on the bus with their phones, shop.  I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only one with the overhead light on during the fully dark ride home this week.  At one point the driver seemed to think it was a mistake on my part and snapped it off.  I carry a book light with me for just such eventualities, but I had that odd feeling one gets when everyone else got the memo but you didn’t.  In any case, I was reading a physical book, not shopping.

Then I read about a book I need for my research.  Problem is, I don’t have an institution, or a wealthy sponsor, so I often buy books used.  Back in my teaching days Amazon was new, and the idea of buying books online foreign and unfamiliar.  Now you can’t find a bookstore when you want one.  In any case, this particular book was on offer on eBay.  Now, I haven’t used eBay for quite a while.  I never think of it as a place to find reading material, but there it was.  Who would’ve thought research would ever lead in this direction?  The price was reasonable, so I signed in as a guest and placed my order.  With out of print books like this you run the risk of price-gouging or sudden unavailability—the independent researcher’s nightmare.

When the confirmation page came up, I couldn’t help but notice that the header was in Russian.  I wondered if Trump’s dream had really finally come true, or if the eBay on which I ordered an out-of-print book was really a trap.  How do you find out?  Who do you tell when your current government is completely at the beck and call of the Russian government?  I was in a brown study for a while.  The book, used, on Amazon was listed at over a thousand dollars, and this for a paperback published in 2009.  People will pay quite a lot for certain books, even if they don’t retain their resale value.  Ideas, it seems, are worth more than money.  But we no longer have a government to protect our interests.  Not even research, it seems, is safe any more.

If you squint, he could be St. Nick

Kids These Days

I couldn’t have been an easy kid to raise. As a teen, while other kids were experimenting with drugs and sex, I started an unexpected habit. I can’t remember why or how it happened. I was the son of a professional drunk and a high school dropout. (Step dad worked in a sewage plant, so that likely wasn’t it either.) Somehow I’d discovered classical music. It wasn’t through records we had at home. If the artist didn’t have Cash or Twitty in their name you were probably tuned into the wrong station, buddy. Since this was before the internet it must’ve been something I heard on television. On Saturdays I’d beg to go to the Oil City Public Library where you could borrow LPs. I’d check out five at a time, and listen to them with headphones on at home. The general opinion in my neighborhood was that this was snob music and other people didn’t want to hear it.

One of the pieces I discovered was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, (officially The Year 1812). This particular recording began with a chorus singing the Russian hymn, in English (hey, I was just learning!). Although I loved the bombastic ending (what boy wouldn’t?) I was haunted by that hymn. I paid no attention to the conductor—I couldn’t tell a Stravinsky from a Stokowski—so I memorized the albums I liked by their cover art. As a teen I had no idea things would ever change and that one day I’d be downloading music instead of carefully, lovingly pulling it out of a colorful sleeve, breathing in the experience.

Russia’s been on a lot of people’s minds lately. I have a great deal of respect for the Russian people. There’s a stolidity and pathos there that is rarely captured in any national music. I longed to hear that recording again. It took the better part of a day searching the internet to find it—I could walk right up to it in the Oil City Public Library four decades ago and put my hand on it. Those days are gone. When I finally located it on YouTube (Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra, in case you’re interested) I couldn’t stop listening. Not only did it take me back to my fractured childhood, it also made me feel a deep connection for a nation that probably looks at my own with great and earned distrust. We all need to learn to look at ourselves from the outside. That hymn! Listen to the words. I could imagine myself being oppressed by people I didn’t know and who had no reason to hate me. Unto our land bring peace. Amen.

Russian Along

Living at Nashotah House—if you haven’t been, trust me—makes one curious about Rasputin. While on the faculty there, his name was used as a common slur. When Brian Moynahan’s Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned came out in 1997 my wife and I bought it and read it together. Two decades on the details had become fuzzy and, having read about Aimee Semple McPherson and her faith healing reminded me of the famous Russian scallawag. For all his personal faults, Rasputin did seem to have genuine healing abilities. He was more shaman than orthodox, to be sure, and Siberia was the home of shamanism as well as Rasputin. For those who don’t know the story, in pre-Revolution Russia Grigory Rasputin rose from a Siberian peasant family to the most trusted advisor to the Empress of Russia, Alexandra Romanov. Her weak-willed husband, Nicholas, also gave credence to the mystic, despite the latter’s well known drunkenness and womanizing.

The fascinating aspect of Moynahan’s treatment is that it brings out the saintly side of this figure who’s grown such a notorious reputation. That’s not to whitewash his extreme lifestyle, but it is to acknowledge that he was far more complex than many critics make him out to be. He seems to have been sincere in his faith, and perhaps a little mentally imbalanced. He was kind to the poor, and charitable. He wasn’t a bigot, a sin quite common in his day. He was a working class mystic who took advantage of being inebriated with power. His influence over Alexandra was so strong that he could appoint Prime Ministers even in the midst of a world war. This is a fascinating personality.

Reading the book at this point in history, however, proved strangely unsettling. Many of us wonder how a rational, fairly educated and prosperous nation could tolerate the buffoons who inhabit Washington, DC. Daily we see insanity—with no exaggeration—on the level of the throes Tsarist Russia, or even of Rome under Caligula. Instead of taking steps to right the course, the Russian, excuse me, I mean Republican, Party does any and everything in its power to keep the illusion of normalcy alive. Even while foreign ministers of his own party tell the European powers to ignore their own president, American Rasputins just can’t survive without their daily power fix. The sad thing about that last sentence is that after writing it I felt as if I were somehow being unfair to Rasputin. And I lived at Nashotah House long enough to know what I’m talking about.

Who Can You Call?

They’re scratching their heads. The media, I mean. In this distorted world of Trumpism, newspapers have rediscovered religion. Some say Trump is the altar boy of the evangelical right with people like Franklin Graham wetting himself over the president. Others say evangelicals want to change their name to distance themselves from Trump. Everybody seems to want to know who evangelicals are, but they’re afraid to ask. The weird, or perhaps expected, thing is universities decline to help. For years now they’ve been cutting positions in religion, a topic no longer relevant or of any interest. Academics aren’t always good at seeing what’s right in front of them, of course. So it is that the media’s scratching its collective head. Is he or isn’t he? What can you say about a man who’s so clearly heathen and yet a sparkling example of Christ-like compassion and values?

It’s doubtful whether any university administrator or televangelist could finger Jesus of Nazareth in a police line-up. They have no idea of who he was or what he taught. All that matters is he was God and he protects unborn babies so that he can arm them with automatic rifles when they’re of age. Oh, and he’s definitely not a woman. Or gay. Is that about it? Just in the past week major media outlets have run stories about the evangelical relationship to the commander-in-thief who’s told more lies in his first year than all other presidents combined. Who said Jesus of Nazareth was honest? He just stood for the right causes.

Having grown up evangelical, studied religion with evangelicals, and having been fired by evangelicals, I know them well. They have a mental capacity for biblicism that’s nearly incomprehensible. The Bible is so sacred that no other book should be placed atop it. It should never be set on the floor. Memorizing chapter and verse is more important than knowing what they might mean or how to live by them. This is old-school blind faith. And proudly so. Trump doesn’t know the Bible but he says he does. His actions resemble the carpenter from Nazareth’s about as much as Joseph Stalin’s. He was a good Christian, too, wasn’t he? After all, the Bible says Russia is our ally. Reagan—another evangelical—may’ve said they were our worst enemy, but one thing we know for sure about the Good Book: it never lies. For that it takes evangelicals and politicians.

News Pause

One of the benefits of “getting away from it all” is the blessed respite from news. Given the political situation these day I suppose that’s a rather risky proposition since the government is now based on presidential moods rather than any kind of policy or strategy. I worried as I got onto the plane home whether regulations might have changed when I was in the air and whether I’d be landing in the same country as the one from which I’d taken off. Maybe it was more than just time zones that we were changing. Being a child of the ‘60s I couldn’t help thinking about the Twilight Zone—getting onto a plane and then something happens. Quite a few episodes deal with that theme. Only now it’s real time. Real fear.

I have to wonder about the impact of constant news. Since November I’ve been obsessed with frequent updates—scanning headlines for any sign of hope that what began as a joke might have finally reached its punchline. Instead, the press has fallen into normalizing Trump, writing and reporting as if this is what happens in a democracy. It should be illegal to elect a dictator. It’s one of those logical conundrums, but it is a real one. Democracy shouldn’t be just those people who feel like they should getting out to vote. It should be a legal obligation. We know that if votes were counted straight up Trump could not have won the election. Since politicians like to play games we now live in the Twilight Zone of government. Every day Trump is allowed to remain in office the more credibility in government erodes. The knock-on effect will continue for years.

Since stepping off that plane I’ve been wondering what has changed over the past week. Has some basic fact of life been overturned by a presidential temper tantrum? Is what I’m doing now illegal? Has a horse been made a senator? Anything is possible. When I last paid attention it seemed we were well on our way to becoming the United States of Russia. I’m afraid to look at the headlines. The glow of getting away from it all hasn’t faded yet. It’s a hazy, dreamy reality that makes government seem like a bad dream. What would happen if they privatized air traffic control when I was in the air? The results are just to scary to contemplate. I think I need a vacation.

Remember Ronnie?

Listening to Comrade Trump, I wonder what it is the GOP really wants. My doublethink may be fuddled a bit, but I’m old enough to remember a guy called Ronald Reagan—champion and darling of the Republicans, some of whom say he was the greatest president ever—who stood firmly against Russia and its designs on this country. Now there is clear evidence that, no matter what the Comrade-in-Chief personally did, his inner circle has been dancing with Putin and they’re more than just a little tipsy. And the GOP stands up and cheers. I don’t know about you, but those who voted for Trump have to be wondering where they laid their Russian dictionaries about now. The Red Scare has come to town and Ronnie’s rolling in his presidential tomb.

The utter stupidity of not seeing when you’re being played astounds me. Look, I’m not the most worldly guy—I taught Bible for goodness sake!—but even I can see when a senator’s smirk says “sucker!” Where were the Trump supporters in the 1980s when we were against everything the Russians were doing, and that’s when they had Gorbachov leading them out of communism? It’s enough to make an old believer in common sense like yours truly crawl into a bottle of vodka and never come back out. Of course, in my days at Nashotah House some in the Episcopal Church were having their own fling with Russian Orthodoxy. Even to the point that the refectory was ordered to serve borscht. I personally didn’t see the charm in it.

I’m not the greatest nationalist alive. Borders, which are artificial, cause far more problems than they solve. You might call me a communist, since that’s in vogue these days. Nevertheless, if we wanted another country to decide our fate for us, I wouldn’t have chosen Russia. My personal choice? Vatican. As the smallest nation in the world they seem to have the best leader on offer. Pope Francis at least has a serious concern for the poor and needy at heart. There are those, after all, who argue that JFK, our only Catholic president, was even better than Reagan, as hard to believe as that might be. There seemed to be a little kerfuffle about missiles in Cuba, I seem to recall, but let’s let bygones be bygones. We live in a world of Newspeak and tweets. And if I didn’t know better, I’d say this borscht tastes a bit off to me.

Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.

Radicalizing the Normal

Reading Orwellian headlines on a daily basis can wear you down. Think about it—we know because of the endless obfuscation that the Trump administration has deep entanglements with Russia. We know that Russians tried to sway the election toward Trump. We also know that the incumbent refuses to release his taxes or divest from his personal business interests and we can only infer that our tax-payer dollars are going into more personal pockets than ever before. We have on tape evidence that the commander-in-chief is a sexual predator who wants to remove the healthcare of millions so that his lackeys can get even more of that lucre. And when the White House speaks its message is that we, not they, are the problem. What used to be normal life in America is now radicalized. Fascism is the flavor of the term.

Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-005-28 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

I’m inclined to be philosophical about such things. After all, I lost my job at Nashotah House while doing things as I always had—the administration had changed, not me. Don’t get me wrong. I know that you have to be flexible and adaptable in the world these days. The policies I see being spewed from the corridors of power, however, are backward facing. Trying to make America as great as it was during the Depression. They call it the Great Depression, after all, don’t they? And the war before that, before it acquired an awful twin, was known as the Great War. Doesn’t everyone look back at those times with a rosy glow of nostalgia? The problem I’m having is trying to figure out what’s normal. You see, you’re born into life with no instruction book. If you’re from a working class family you’ll be told that an education will improve your job prospects. Who am I to question those who know better?

It used to be, back in the good old days, that you could count on the government looking out for your own best interests. You didn’t have to spend every day signing petitions and calling your congress-persons simply to avoid the next disaster. You didn’t spend your weekends at marches and huddles and organizing meetings. The little time you had for leisure has now become time we owe the government to make sure they don’t intentionally ram the iceberg straight ahead. What used to be normal—a drowsy weekend with time to work on your latest book—has now become a radical dream. Midterm elections, in my humble opinion, can’t come soon enough. I can’t wait to get back to normal.

An Apple a Day

Have you ever bitten into a piece of rotten fruit? I suspect most of us have had the unpleasant experience. From the outside the apple looks fine but that first bite sinks into a brown and corrupt interior that turns your stomach. There’s no rehabilitating it—once fruit’s gone bad it’s bad. Jesus is once said to have said “by their fruits you will know them,” them being the righteous. Over the last several days we’ve watched, not exactly surprised, as the news revealed Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied under oath—what used to be a very serious crime—about consorting with the Russians. The difference between that and the apple I described is that this one didn’t look so good from the outside either. Eve, I think, would’ve chosen a different piece.

The strange thing about this is that evangelical Christians of the sort that voted for Trump should know about the fruits passage. Not the Eve one, the other one. Growing up in a Fundamentalist context I frequently heard about knowing others by their fruits. People are capable of deception, even under oath. That’s why we have a name for it. Thing is, we expect better from those who hold the highest offices in the land. And we’d expect honesty on the part of the evangelical crowd. Once you’ve bitten into that apple there’s no turning back. Ideology trumps theology, it seems. Even the Bible. That’s one of the great mysteries of our time—those who loudly proclaim they live their lives by the Bible count on others not having read it. Kind of embarrassing to be caught with your bias showing. Those whose sins you’re willing to overlook in the name of principle.

As the rogue’s gallery that we now recognize as the presidential cabinet was being nominated, many in this nation suffered shock wave after shock wave of incredulity. Steve Bannon later admitted that their role was to dismantle the agencies they’d inherited—so much for the meek inheriting the earth bit—while power-blinded Republican leaders followed like, well, sheep. The evangelical crowd, ignoring that troublesome leather-bound book they love, refuse to criticize. Who hasn’t forgotten meeting with the Russian Ambassador from time to time? I’m old fashioned enough to believe there’s a difference between biting into an apple that to all appearances is fine and one that’s obviously rotten from the start. In one case you end up disappointed. In the other you get what you deserve.

img_2996

Right to Remain Silent

img_3101

My daughter has a set of nesting Russian dolls. “Matryoshka dolls,” as they are known, fit one inside the other so when you open one you find another inside. Just when you think you’ve reached the last one, you see that yet another can fit inside. I never thought of these dolls as anything more than a toy. Then I started reading the headlines. Or lack of headlines. We now know that Russia tampered with our election process. The major newspapers, however, have turned their attention elsewhere. If we’re lucky it may make the front page, but for the most part this is “old news” and old news doesn’t sell papers. After all, hadn’t Putin and Trump bragged about this months ago? Now, on the eve of the Electoral College’s voting, we hear virtually nothing about it. I wonder if media moguls shouldn’t have to take a kind of Hippocratic Oath. Or at least read us the Miranda Rights.

Although only one major newspaper endorsed Trump before the election, they’ve all silently endorsed him since. The choice of what to tell the public is indeed assent. I’ve signed at least three petitions a day asking the President, congress, my next door neighbor—anybody who will listen—to inform the Electoral College of this. Electors, you see, are like automatons. And we want to preserve the democratic process even when we know it isn’t handled democratically. Especially when it isn’t handled democratically. 2.8 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than did for Donald Trump. It now looks like even some of those Trump votes came from Siberia. My, it’s been chilly outside the last few days! I’d better brush up on my Dostoyevsky.

Even as a child I wasn’t the kind to take the Apocalypse lying down. We have rights. Our rights include electing our own President without the interference of some other country. In just about any sport interference leads to a penalty. Unless that sport is electing an incompetent to the White House. Already the GOP has been discussing how to restrict voting rights for Americans while opening the voting booth curtain to Moscow. Don’t get me wrong—I hold nothing against the garden-variety Russian. Unlike the unlikely Republicans accepting former Soviet help, I’m not a xenophobe. It’s just that I believe in keeping things in their place. Like matryoshka dolls—you can’t fit a bigger one inside its smaller sister. You wouldn’t know that from reading the newspapers, though.

Contextual Criticism

As I was reading Brian Pavlac’s Witch Hunts in the Western World, I learned about klikushi, or “shriekers.” These were Russian “witches” who appear as early as the seventeenth century and who are characterized by screaming, “wailing, barking, and writhing during worship services” (184). In that day this was taken to be a sign of witchcraft and women were arrested and tried for it. Fast forward a century or two. In the wilds of Kentucky what is generally called the Second Great Awakening was taking place. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit were, well, wailing, barking, and writhing, significantly, during worship services. These “signs” triggered the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, today one of the largest sects of Christianity. If the exact same behavior had taken place in a different context, the coverts would’ve been convicts.

It is safe to say that psychological explanations may be found for the bizarre activities of people living under a great deal of stress. No supernatural agency is required for glossolalia, spontaneous dancing, or canine vocalizations. If you look closely you’ll probably find any combination of the three in secular contexts during an average stroll through Manhattan. In a haunted country full of tales of the devil, they will be attributed to witchcraft. In a tent-meeting revival under the influence of an emphatic preacher, they will be called signs of the spirit.

Religions like to teach that they are universal, but in fact they are highly contextualized. What I used to tell my students about words applies also to acts—the meaning depends on the context. Whether somebody getting up off their ass is vulgar or merely a statement of fact depends on where the person is sitting. Religions are often rose-colored glasses, casting events in the shades we prefer to see. They are ways of interpreting the world around us and speculating on what, if anything, is outside our apparently closed system. There’s a lesson here to be learned by all. One person’s Monday may be another’s Thursday, but there’s no need for anyone to be crucified if they do it differently. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we only believed that?

It's all a matter of perspective.

Hope for the Flowers

Resurrection can become a tired trope, but it is the stuff of both religion and science. Last week it was reported that Russian scientists revivified a plant frozen on the tundra 30,000 years ago. Quite apart from proving that Siberia was already in place 24,000 years before God got around to creating the planet, this amazing feat teaches us lessons about life and its resilience, and also of the possibilities beyond the great pale. The scientists regrew the plant without the benefit of using seeds, making this a kind of virgin birth of the florid kind. Using plant versions of stem cells (the kind of science forbidden in the USA: “won’t somebody think of the seedlings!”), the dead plant was rejuvenated and is alive and healthy in a world vastly different than the mammoth-infested, frosty plains of northern Russia where it first saw daylight. Still, that environment was less hostile to science than the Religious Right. This resurrection shows that we don’t need miracles to bring inert matter back from the dead. No doubt there are covert Creationists trying to sneak into Russia with travel-sized bottles of Roundup in their carry-on bags.

Science has brought us to incredible places by its continued, self-critical process. Religion, preferring no critique, has given us characters like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Rick Santorum. And a really big book. Looking at the religious scene today it is difficult to believe that religions began as exercises in optimism—the world could be better if only we’d progress. Regress now characterizes the religion in the public eye—men (occasionally women) claiming that things were better when we were tilting with mammoths than they are now with people advocating equality for people of other genders, races, and sexual orientations. Science represents our progress, and the vocal theocrats claim we should be going backward. Back to when men were measured by the size of their spears.

Back when I was a teenager I discovered the book Hope for the Flowers, by Trina Paulus. Not really a graphic novel, and not really a children’s book, it tells the story of two caterpillars with the courage to reject the constant, heartless climbing so often required by the world. In the end, of course, they become butterflies. The story has a religious subtext, naturally, but it was for a religion that believed butterflies should be valued rather than smashed between the pages of a heavy Bible. Butterflies bring the pollen that allows flowers to thrive. We live in a world where butterflies have become soft and defenseless while religion is aggressive and offensive. Science has shown us the way to bring flowers back from the grave, but old-time religion is waiting in the shadows with its rusty scythe.

Now Locusts?

With the same page of the newspaper lamenting flooding in Iowa and drought in Florida, it seems that nature has turned against us in an almost biblical way. A more biblical plague than locusts would be hard to conceive, however, so when my wife pointed me to a current video of a locust invasion in Russia, I took notice. In the United States we seldom consider locusts since they have largely ceased to be a problem with the extinction of the Rocky Mountain locust for unknown reasons, last century. One of the more interesting books I’ve read over the last few years was Jeffrey Alan Lockwood’s Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier. Because the locust is not an American problem, biblical literalists like to transform biblical locusts into something else. The transformation is not necessary. We’ve eliminated the large predators from our planet, and the small ones often go unnoticed.

Each year as I lecture on the book of Joel, I spend a little time with locusts. The Asian varieties of locusts tend to reproduce rapidly and prolifically in the desert. Quickly exhausting the sparse food supply, they take to the air and fly for, literally, greener pastures. They can fly for three days without stopping which means they are suddenly there and eating everything. They look like divine judgment. Each locust eats its own body weight in green matter daily, and when a swarm can contain over 100 billion locusts, that can add up to 50,000 tons of food a day. Like poorly mannered house guests, locusts stay until all the food is gone, then leave. They are fully capable of devastating entire nations.

An actual biblical locust, vintage 1915.

Hal Lindsey famously converted Joel’s locusts into military helicopters, claiming that they presaged the end times. Decades later we are still here and so are, apparently, the locusts. They are part of evolution’s great machinery. The biblical view that we are the purpose behind that machinery has caused endless problems for the ecosystem. Locusts are a problem because they consume the food that we would otherwise eat or waste. In the struggle for survival, as Joel attests, it is not always the biggest that win.